Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Universe of the Glasgow Labour Party

Magazine article The Spectator

The Strange Universe of the Glasgow Labour Party

Article excerpt

This month, the Glorious Twelfth; next month, the portentous Eleventh. On 11 September, in a referendum, the Scottish electorate will vote in favour of a Parliament in Edinburgh, and they will almost certainly ask for it to be endowed with taxraising powers.

There are two extraordinary aspects to all this. The first is that devolution could have profound consequences. The abolition of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 helped to shape three centuries of British history; its restoration could have an equally important influence over the next three centuries. It could even ensure that British history comes to an end. Yet hardly anyone is trying to think all this through.

The second is the startling absence of Scottish public enthusiasm for the prospect of a new Parliament; there is no joyous expectation of a nation once again. A few years ago, while firmly rejecting the referendum which his successor conceded, John Smith spoke about `the settled will of the Scottish people'. Today, it is more a matter of settled apathy. Everyone takes for granted that it is going to happen; no one can get worked up about it - except Tam Dalyell.

From New Labour's point of view, the referendum campaign was going perfectly. They had the votes, both in Westminster and at the ballot-box, so what was the point in intellectual arguments? Not only that, most of the opponents of devolution are Tories, many of whom are still deeply demoralised as a result of their parliamentary extinction on 1 May. Once Labour had won on such a scale, devolution seemed inevitable; most people see little point in resisting the inevitable.

Not Mr Dalyell. He has never believed in working out the odds; he invariably sticks to his principles and damns the consequences. His forebear, 'bluidy Tam' Dalyell, first raised the Scots Greys in order to help put down the Covenanters. The current Tam may be an Old Etonian and a baronet (he does not use the title) but he is as relentless as his ancestor was - and over the decades, the Labour Whips' Office has dignified him with much ruder epithets than bluidy. His political career has been a long succession of battles, fought on his side with an equal mixture of courtesy and obsession. But he may at last be overmastered; he has now taken on an opponent as obsessive as himself, though not as courteous.

A few days ago, Peter Mandelson asserted that devolution would strengthen Scotland within the Union, so Tam Dalyell asked him to explain how. Tam does not seem to have grasped the concept of soundbites; they are not there to be explained. Mr Mandelson did not reply to the enquiry; it is hardly surprising that he should decline to enter into the briar patch of an argument with Tam Dalyell on devolution. Then Mr Dalyell, unanswered, dismissed Mr Mandelson's comments as 'silly'. This enraged the New Labourites in Mr Dalyell's constituency, who may deselect him. Tam Dalyell deselected for arguing with Peter Mandelson: behold New Labour in all its moral grandeur.

Messrs Blair and Mandelson will expedite devolution, but their enthusiasm for the subject is hardly greater than the Scottish peoples'. Indeed, there is little about Scotland that does arouse New Labour's enthusiasm. Yet that is paradoxical. Without Scotland, New Labour would not exist in its current form, for the Labour party itself would not have survived the 1980s.

In two crucial respects, the Scottish Labour party saved the English Labour party from its own folly. …

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